Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

29 MAY, 2013

Be All Your Selves: Joss Whedon’s 2013 Wesleyan Commencement Address on Embracing Our Inner Contradictions

By:

“Identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is a process that you must be active in.”

On the heels of this season’s finest commencement addresses — including Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, Greil Marcus on the artificial divide between “high” and “low” culture, and Arianna Huffington on redefining success — comes screenwriter, producer, composer, and actor Joss Whedon, who delivered the 2013 Wesleyan commencement address, brimming with sometimes uncomfortable but invariably profound reminders of our purpose and challenges as human beings.

Annotated highlights below.

Whedon begins with a rather atypical subject for graduation speeches — the mortality paradox:

What I’d like to say to all of you is that you are all going to die. … You have, in fact, already begun to die. You look great. Don’t get me wrong. And you are youth and beauty. You are at the physical peak. Your bodies have just gotten off the ski slope on the peak of growth, potential, and now comes the black diamond mogul run to the grave. And the weird thing is your body wants to die. On a cellular level, that’s what it wants. And that’s probably not what you want.

I’m confronted by a great deal of grand and worthy ambition from this student body. You want to be a politician, a social worker. You want to be an artist. Your body’s ambition: Mulch. Your body wants to make some babies and then go in the ground and fertilize things. That’s it. And that seems like a bit of a contradiction. It doesn’t seem fair. For one thing, we’re telling you, “Go out into the world!” exactly when your body is saying, “Hey, let’s bring it down a notch. Let’s take it down.”

And that’s actually what I’d like to talk to you about. The contradiction between your body and your mind, between your mind and itself. I believe these contradictions and these tensions are the greatest gift that we have.

Like science, Whedon argues, human identity is inherent contradiction, driven by “something that is a constant in your life and in your identity, not just in your body but in your own mind, in ways that you may recognize or you may not.” And given what we know about the myth of one-dimensional personality, this makes sense. But this ability to recognize and embrace our inner conflicts and bipolar tensions, Whedon assures as he echoes Bruce Lee, is a blessing rather than a curse — one of the hallmarks of being human, even. In that respect, he reminds us, like Anaïs Nin eloquently did, that our identity is in constant revision — or, as Vi Hart memorably put it, “Your greatest creation is yourself. Like any great work of art, creating a great self means putting in hard work, every day, for years.” Whedon urges:

You have, which is a rare thing, that ability and the responsibility to listen to the dissent in yourself, to at least give it the floor, because it is the key — not only to consciousness, but to real growth. To accept duality is to earn identity. And identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is not just who you are. It is a process that you must be active in.

Whedon goes on to encourage us to try embracing rather than eradicating those inner paradoxes of which we’re all woven:

This contradiction, and this tension … it never goes away. And if you think that achieving something, if you think that solving something, if you think a career or a relationship will quiet that voice, it will not. If you think that happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace. It will always be in conflict. If you accept that, everything gets a lot better.

In a nod to one of science’s core principles, which is the constant critical thinking that battles the vanity of certainty, Whedon speaks for the value of questioning your convictions before you become too ossified to nimbly respond to criticism:

Because you are establishing your identities and your beliefs, you need to argue yourself down, because somebody else will. Somebody’s going to come at you, and whatever your belief, your idea, your ambition, somebody’s going to question it. And unless you have first, you won’t be able to answer back, you won’t be able to hold your ground. You don’t believe me, try taking a stand on just one leg. You need to see both sides.

“It is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar,” Anaïs Nin observed. “In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent,” Martine advised in his famous 1866 do’s and don’ts of conversation, “so you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” And yet, Whedon argues, ours is a culture Simone de Beauvoir would wince at, one staggeringly uncomfortable with ambiguity and fixated on righteous reductionism — a toxic tendency where change is most critical and urgent:

[Our culture] is not long on contradiction or ambiguity. … It likes things to be simple, it likes things to be pigeonholed—good or bad, black or white, blue or red. And we’re not that. We’re more interesting than that. And the way that we go into the world understanding is to have these contradictions in ourselves and see them in other people and not judge them for it. To know that, in a world where debate has kind of fallen away and given way to shouting and bullying, that the best thing is not just the idea of honest debate, the best thing is losing the debate, because it means that you learn something and you changed your position. The only way really to understand your position and its worth is to understand the opposite.

That doesn’t mean the crazy guy on the radio who is spewing hate, it means the decent human truths of all the people who feel the need to listen to that guy. You are connected to those people. They’re connected to him. You can’t get away from it. This connection is part of contradiction. It is the tension I was talking about. This tension isn’t about two opposite points, it’s about the line in between them, and it’s being stretched by them. We need to acknowledge and honor that tension, and the connection that that tension is a part of. Our connection not just to the people we love, but to everybody, including people we can’t stand and wish weren’t around. The connection we have is part of what defines us on such a basic level.

Ultimately, what makes Whedon’s speech so beautiful is that he takes one of commencement addresses’ most contrived tropes and turns it on its head, gives its trampled flatness new dimension:

So here’s the thing about changing the world. It turns out that’s not even the question, because you don’t have a choice. You are going to change the world, because that is actually what the world is. You do not pass through this life, it passes through you. You experience it, you interpret it, you act, and then it is different. That happens constantly. You are changing the world. You always have been, and now, it becomes real on a level that it hasn’t been before. And that’s why I’ve been talking only about you and the tension within you, because you are — not in a clichéd sense, but in a weirdly literal sense — the future.

After you walk up here and walk back down, you’re going to be the present. You will be the broken world and the act of changing it, in a way that you haven’t been before. You will be so many things, and the one thing that I wish I’d known and want to say is, don’t just be yourself. Be all of yourselves. Don’t just live. Be that other thing connected to death. Be life. Live all of your life. Understand it, see it, appreciate it. And have fun.

Complement Whedon’s address with more timeless words of wisdom for graduates, including Neil Gaiman on making good art, Bill Watterson on creative integrity, and David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life.

Portrait of Joss Whedon by Joe Pugieliese for Wired; public domain images via Flickr Commons

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

29 MAY, 2013

Intuition Pumps: Daniel Dennett on the Dignity and Art-Science of Making Mistakes

By:

“The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself.”

“If you are not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks,” Debbie Millman counseled. “Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before,” Neil Gaiman advised young creators. In Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (public library), the inimitable Daniel Dennett, one of our greatest living philosophers, offers a set of thinking tools — “handy prosthetic imagination-extenders and focus holders” — that allow us to “think reliably and even gracefully about really hard questions” — to enhance your cognitive toolkit. He calls these tools “intuition pumps” — thought experiments designed to stir “a heartfelt, table-thumping intuition” (which we know is a pillar of even the most “rational” of science) about the question at hand, a kind of persuasion tool the reverse-engineering of which enables us to think better about thinking itself. Intuition, of course, is a domain-specific ability that relies on honed critical thinking rather than a mystical quality bestowed by the gods — but that’s precisely Dennett’s point, and his task is to help us hone it.

Though most of his 77 “intuition pumps” address concrete questions, a dozen are “general-purpose” tools that apply deeply and widely, across just about any domain of thinking. The first of them is also arguably the most useful yet most uncomfortable: making mistakes.

Echoing Dorion Sagan’s case for why science and philosophy need each other, Dennett begins with an astute contribution to the best definitions of philosophy, wrapped in a necessary admonition about the value of history:

The history of philosophy is in large measure the history of very smart people making very tempting mistakes, and if you don’t know the history, you are doomed to making the same darn mistakes all over again. … There is no such thing as philosophy-free science, just science that has been conducted without any consideration of its underlying philosophical assumptions.

He speaks for the generative potential of mistakes and their usefulness as an empirical tool:

Sometimes you don’t just want to risk making mistakes; you actually want to make them — if only to give you something clear and detailed to fix.

Therein lies the power of mistakes as a vehicle for, as Rilke famously put it, “living the questions” and thus advancing knowledge in a way that certainty cannot — for, as Richard Feynman memorably noted, the scientist’s job is to remain unsure, and so seems the philosopher’s. Dennett writes:

We philosophers are mistake specialists. … While other disciplines specialize in getting the right answers to their defining questions, we philosophers specialize in all the ways there are of getting things so mixed up, so deeply wrong, that nobody is even sure what the right questions are, let alone the answers. Asking the wrong questions risks setting any inquiry off on the wrong foot. Whenever that happens, this is a job for philosophers! Philosophy — in every field of inquiry — is what you have to do until you figure out what questions you should have been asking in the first place.

[…]

Mistakes are not just opportunities for learning; they are, in an important sense, the only opportunity for learning or making something truly new. Before there can be learning, there must be learners. There are only two non-miraculous ways for learners to come into existence: they must either evolve or be designed and built by learners that evolved. Biological evolution proceeds by a grand, inexorable process of trial and error — and without the errors the trials wouldn’t accomplish anything.

Dennett offers a caveat that at once highlights the importance of acquiring knowledge and reminds us of the power of “chance-opportunism”:

Trials can be either blind or foresighted. You, who know a lot, but not the answer to the question at hand, can take leaps — foresighted leaps. You can look before you leap, and hence be somewhat guided from the outset by what you already know. You need not be guessing at random, but don’t look down your nose at random guesses; among its wonderful products is … you!

And since evolution is the highest epitome of how the process of trial and error drives progress, Dennett makes a case for understanding evolution as a key to understanding everything else we humans value:

Evolution … is the central, enabling process not only of life but also of knowledge and learning and understanding. If you attempt to make sense of the world of ideas and meanings, free will and morality, art and science and even philosophy itself without a sound and quite detailed knowledge of evolution, you have one hand tied behind your back. … For evolution, which knows nothing, the steps into novelty are blindly taken by mutations, which are random copying “errors” in DNA.

Dennett echoes Dostoyevsky (“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.”) and offers the key to making productive mistakes:

The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself. Instead of turning away in denial when you make a mistake, you should become a connoisseur of your own mistakes, turning them over in your mind as if they were works of art, which in a way they are. … The trick is to take advantage of the particular details of the mess you’ve made, so that your next attempt will be informed by it and not just another blind stab in the dark.

We have all heard the forlorn refrain “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!” This phrase has come to stand for the rueful reflection of an idiot, a sign of stupidity, but in fact we should appreciate it as a pillar of wisdom. Any being, any agent, who can truly say, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!” is standing on the threshold of brilliance.

In fact, Dennett argues in considering what makes us human, one of the hallmarks of our intelligence is our ability to remember our previous thinking and reflect on, learn from it, use it to construct future thinking. Reminding us to beware our culture’s deep-seated fear of being wrong, he advocates for celebrating the “ignorance” that produced the mistake in the first place:

So when you make a mistake, you should learn to take a deep breath, grit your teeth, and then examine your own recollections of the mistake as ruthlessly and as dispassionately as you can manage. It’s not easy. The natural human reaction to making a mistake is embarrassment and anger (we are never angrier than when we are angry at ourselves), and you have to work hard to overcome these emotional reactions. Try to acquire the weird practice of savoring your mistakes, delighting in uncovering the strange quirks that led you astray. Then, once you have sucked out all the goodness to be gained from having made them, you can cheerfully set them behind you, and go on to the next big opportunity. But that is not enough: you should actively seek out opportunities to make grand mistakes, just so you can then recover from them.

Dennett turns to card magicians for an analogy: Many of their “tricks” actually rely on chance to work, but they’ve devised numerous strategies of varying complexity to smoothly mask for the failed tricks in which chance isn’t in their favor. Their mistakes thus become invisible but their successes, those instances in which chance appears magical, become gloriously visible to the audience’s awe and delight. Dennett compares this to science:

Evolution works the same way: all the dumb mistakes tend to be invisible, so all we see is a stupendous string of triumphs. For instance, the vast majority — way over 90 percent — of all the creatures that have ever lived died childless, but not a single one of your ancestors suffered that fate. Talk about a line of charmed lives!

One big difference between the discipline of science and the discipline of stage magic is that while magicians conceal their false starts from the audience as best they can, in science you make your mistakes in public. You show them off so that everybody can learn from them. … It is not so much that our brains are bigger or more powerful, or even that we have the knack of reflecting on our own past errors, but that we share the benefits that our individual brains have won by their individual histories of trial and error.

Returning to Gaiman’s point about brilliantly original mistakes, Dennett ends with a wonderful and necessary addition to history’s finest thinking on criticism, reminding us that critics simply tell us our thinking is original and notable enough to be worthy of dissent:

Actually, people love it when somebody admits to making a mistake. All kinds of people love pointing out mistakes. Generous-spirited people appreciate your giving them the opportunity to help, and acknowledging it when they succeed in helping you; mean-spirited people enjoy showing you up. Let them! Either way we all win.

Of course, in general, people do not enjoy correcting the stupid mistakes of others. You have to have something worth correcting, something original to be right or wrong about. . . .

Complement Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking with This Will Make You Smarter, one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012, in which 151 of our time’s biggest thinkers — including Dennett — each select a single scientific concept that will improve everyone’s cognitive toolkit.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

29 MAY, 2013

Be Like Water: The Philosophy and Origin of Bruce Lee’s Famous Metaphor for Resilience

By:

“In order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.”

With his singular blend of physical prowess and metaphysical wisdom, coupled with his tragic untimely death, legendary Chinese-American martial artist, philosopher, and filmmaker Bruce Lee (1940-1973) is one of those rare cultural icons whose ethos and appeal remain timeless, attracting generation after generation of devotees. Inspired by the core principles of Wing Chun, the ancient Chinese conceptual martial art, which he learned from his only formal martial arts teacher, Yip Man, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. When he left Hong Kong in 1959, Lee adapted Wing Chun into his own version, Jun Fan Gung Fu — literal translation: Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu — and popularized it in America.

In 1971, at the peak of his career, Lee starred in four episodes of the short-lived TV series Longstreet. In one of them, he delivered his most oft-cited metaphor for the philosophy of Gung Fu:

But the famed snippet belies the full dimensionality of the metaphor and says nothing about how Lee arrived at it. Luckily, in Bruce Lee: Artist of Life (public library) — a compendium of his never-before-published private letters, notes, and poems, offering unprecedented insight into his philosophy on life and his convictions about martial arts, love, and parenthood — Lee traces the thinking that originated his famous metaphor, which came after a period of frustration with his inability to master “the art of detachment” that Yip Man was trying to impart on him. Lee writes:

When my acute self-consciousness grew to what the psychologists refer to as the “double-bind” type, my instructor would again approach me and say, “Loong, preserve yourself by following the natural bends of things and don’t interfere. Remember never to assert yourself against nature; never be in frontal opposition to any problems, but control it by swinging with it. Don’t practice this week: Go home and think about it.”

And so he did, spending the following week at home:

After spending many hours meditating and practicing, I gave up and went sailing alone in a junk. On the sea I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched the water! Right then — at that moment — a thought suddenly struck me; was not this water the very essence of gung fu? Hadn’t this water just now illustrated to me the principle of gung fu? I struck it but it did not suffer hurt. Again I struck it with all of my might — yet it was not wounded! I then tried to grasp a handful of it but this proved impossible. This water, the softest substance in the world, which could be contained in the smallest jar, only seemed weak. In reality, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.

Suddenly a bird flew by and cast its reflection on the water. Right then I was absorbing myself with the lesson of the water, another mystic sense of hidden meaning revealed itself to me; should not the thoughts and emotions I had when in front of an opponent pass like the reflection of the birds flying over the water? This was exactly what Professor Yip meant by being detached — not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked. Therefore in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.

Bruce Lee (right) with his only formal martial art instructor, Yip Man

Quoting from Lao Tzu’s famous teachings, Lee writes:

The natural phenomenon which the gung fu man sees as being the closest resemblance to wu wei [the principle of spontaneous action governed by the mind and not the senses] is water:

Nothing is weaker than water,
But when it attacks something hard
Or resistant, then nothing withstands it,
And nothing will alter its way.

The above passages from the Tao Te Ching illustrate to us the nature of water: Water is so fine that it is impossible to grasp a handful of it; strike it, yet it does not suffer hurt; stab it, and it is not wounded; sever it, yet it is not divided. It has no shape of its own but molds itself to the receptacle that contains it. When heated to the state of steam it is invisible but has enough power to split the earth itself. When frozen it crystallizes into a mighty rock. First it is turbulent like Niagara Falls, and then calm like a still pond, fearful like a torrent, and refreshing like a spring on a hot summer’s day. So is the principle of wu wei:

The rivers and seas are lords of a hundred valleys. This is because their strength is in lowliness; they are kings of them all. So it is that the perfect master wishing to lead them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, men do not feel him to be an injury. And since he will not strive, none strive with him.

Bruce Lee: Artist of Life is fantastic in its entirety.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.